Exposure

Trish Annese 

             

One afternoon, not long after Emma’s father dies, Eve leads her to the cemetery up the block from the apartment she shares with her grieving mother. Emma doesn’t want to go, but Eve begs.

            “It’s pretty,” she pleads, then adds, “Your father’s not there.”

            “I know he’s not,” Emma snaps, angry that Eve is making her think about him, about his remains, chalky and still in an urn in some low monument at a cemetery across town.

            Eve takes Emma’s hand in hers, pulls it a bit, and says, “Come on.” This is what Eve is like. She ignores feelings that don’t suit her, especially when they belong to someone else, and while Emma has only known Eve for a short time—they met a mere two weeks after her father’s death when Eve found Emma crying in the girls’ bathroom at school, fat hands wedged against fat cheeks, sniveling mournfully—Eve’s capacity to shift the subject away from herself has already created a mystique Emma finds hard to resist. The unpredictable nature of Eve’s behaviors and observations only serve to deepen the fascination, though Emma had noticed Eve only in passing prior to the fateful moment in the bathroom. When the pretty, slim stranger handed Emma a tissue and gathered her in a generous hug where she huddled against the dirty tile in the girls’ lavatory, Emma was, for lack of a better term, smitten. 

            Emma trudges behind Eve as the two make their way single file to the arboretum, past the lilacs that have not yet bloomed, through the carved gates of the cemetery entrance where the sky looms empty and gray beyond a crumbling arch surrounded by bare-branched trees. Columns of granite line the driveways that snake through the cemetery proper, ending in muddy clearings. Beyond that, acres of tombstones rise—carved with names and dates that Emma has trouble making out, they are so worn by age and weather.

            Eve pulls a piece of paper from the black bicycle bag she brings everywhere and hands it to Emma along with a short piece of charcoal. Searching soundlessly, she discovers a grave inscribed with curling vines and rosettes and kneels before it, running her fingers over the latticed work of a stone carver long dead.

            “Rachel Hawthorne,” she reads, “Born 1906. Died 1906. Just a baby, Emma.”

            Emma wonders what she means. A part of her, the part that is still fresh and raw from the grief of her father’s death, wonders if Eve is trying to get her to understand that the loss of a grown man is less terrible than the loss of a child, and she feels something like sickness rise in her throat. She examines Eve's face for a suggestion of malice, but Eve simply sits with her hands flat against the grave where the baby’s name lingers despite over a century of abuse by wind, rain, and the casual fingers of strangers coming to contemplate death at the expense of this tiny grounded soul.

            “Emma, watch.” Eve takes a piece of paper from her sack and hands it to her along with a short piece of charcoal. “Rub your paper with the black. Like this.” Eve demonstrates how to do a rubbing, scrubbing the soft round of charcoal across the paper that she uses to cover the grave. After vigorous effort, the negative impression of the dead girl’s name emerges on the page.

            “You,” Eve passes the charcoal to Emma who gingerly adds a second rubbing to the page. They spend the next hour wandering through the cemetery, seeking strange names and old dates, telling macabre stories of babies in linen nightgowns burning with fever; of young girls, their growth stunted, their backs and limbs misshapen with illness; of old men with missing legs and stomach ulcers, holding themselves alone in their beds. Casting death as the enemy makes Emma feel better; makes her feel less angry with her father for leaving and more angry with the ugly agent that arranged for his premature departure. It is always this way with Eve; her insistence on the impossible—a graveyard when Emma’s father has not been dead a month!—cedes relief. When they’ve filled two pages with rubbings, Eve gathers them together, sets them on the wall of a crumbling tomb, and scoops a handful of pebbles to set on top of them; they leave them there, weighted with stones and stories.

            The two girls wander a few more paths before Emma tires and picks a place to sit, Eve beside her, their backs against a silver-black stone, Eve stretching her long legs across the fresh mound of a grave before rummaging in her messenger bag for the two packs of cigarettes she has hidden there. She holds them up, dancing them before Emma like two dolls dressed in red stripes, sporting cellophane shawls.

            “Want one?”

            Eve doesn’t wait for Emma to answer. Instead, she knocks two cigarettes from one of the packs, flipping one into Emma’s lap and settling the other between her lips.

            Emma’s father smoked, but never at home. An architect—an artist of space and line, he always explained—he was well-known, traveling to cities all over the world where he designed spare, sweeping buildings in faraway places Emma had never seen, and where, apparently, he smoked. When Emma asked him why, he would shrug. “When in Rome…” he’d offered with a laugh before directing her and her mother’s attention to the photos from Italy of an opening for a new building he’d imagined. In the pictures he lounged with languid women, who looked like models, holding cigarettes. “It keeps you thin,” he added, to no one in particular, but Emma saw the look his mother shot him. He offered to take Emma on his trips with him, but she made excuses not to go, instead staying behind with her mother who wondered at her staunch refusal.

            “Emma, the world is not going to stop and wait for you to catch up to it. You have to take advantage of the opportunities you’re offered when you can.”

            She was right, but Emma didn’t care. “So you go,” she’d spit, leaving her in the kitchen to make dinner for the three of them.

            Eve chatters about the cigarettes as Emma thinks about the familiar scent of nicotine rising from her father’s hands when he would return from a trip late at night and move through the dark of her room to say goodnight.

            “I tried to get the clove kind,” she explains, “but they were too high for me to reach. These were an easy grab,” she winks.

            Emma pictures Eve in the corner store, smiling at the burnout behind the counter, snagging the Marlboros while he talks to his band buddies who’ve stopped in to go over the lineup before their next gig. She lights the cigarettes and Emma inhales, pulling on the smoke, feeling it curl into her lungs, burning the back of her throat. Eve smokes with elegance, holding the cigarette between her middle fingers like a movie director Emma saw interviewed on TV once. It’s probably the same way her father smoked, thought Emma. She tries imagining the spicy tang of cloves in place of the ashy taste that coats her tongue, envisions posing carelessly before a foreign fountain, arch and insouciant, but she cannot conjure such vignettes and she sputters, coughing as she lets go her breath. Emma expects Eve to laugh but she doesn’t. She just looks Emma over, then, without warning, leans forward to rip the cigarette from her fingers, stubbing it into the soft earth of the grave before casting it away with a flourish.

            “No smoking for you, fairy baby,” she tsks.

            Relieved of the burden of smoking, Emma shakes her head to knock loose the scent of those nicotine-stained fingers. She drapes herself across the grave next to Eve, feeling the damp warmth of the spring grass prickling her spreading stomach and thick thighs. Her gaze wanders to the headstone, carved with Hebrew letters that look like embroidered designs in the rock, rising from the ground near her feet, a Star of David crowning its center point.

            When Emma was twelve she went with her parents to Florida. She played in the pool, sliding between the sunshiny world of the sky and the watery castles that rose from the refracted pattern of aqua light created by the glass tiles at the pool’s bottom. She stroked her hair—pretending she was clothed in seaweed and shells—while her mother watched, shading her eyes from the water's glare in the hot afternoon sun. Emma’s father didn’t like pools at all and only occasionally came down from the air-conditioned conference rooms where he attended meetings all day to sit in the nearby shade. He didn’t speak and seemed almost angry with Emma’s mother as he drew pictures of tall, angular buildings in his travel sketchbook. Her mother wasn’t a swimmer either; rather, she sat at the edge of the pool in her bathing suit, wetting only her legs. She looked pretty sitting that way, strands of her coppery hair shining in the sun’s light. Trim and cool, she seemed the evocation of her husband’s designs—lithe and streamlined.

            When Emma emerged from the pool, water dripping from the tip of her nose, running down her neck and gathering in the deep cleft between her breasts, she caught her father’s look of disgust. “Cover up, Emma,” he said, and she’d done so, avoiding the empty lounge chair next to him in favor of tracking lizards against the trunks of palms to his right. When the towel slipped repeatedly from her shoulders, he leaned over and jerked it tight to her neck. “Cover up, I told you,” he hissed before stalking off the patio. Emma, who had frozen at her father’s touch, clutched the towel to her chin and tried not to notice her mother pointedly ignoring their exchange.  

            “Do you miss your dad?” Eve asks, exhaling a gust of smoke.

            Emma doesn’t want to talk about her father.

            “Do you?” Emma counters, a meanness rising in her chest. Emma knows the answer to this question, has hurled it back at Eve because they both know the answer: Eve doesn’t know her father—has never known him. He deserted her mother before Eve was born. Emma feels bad the second the question leaves her lips, but Eve is too quick for her.

     “Miss your dad?” she finishes Emma’s question for her, laughing. “No. No, I don’t. But I don’t think I knew him as well as you did,” she adds, jumping to her feet.

     “Hand me that,” she orders, pointing to her satchel.

     Emma tosses it to her, frustrated by how easily Eve thwarts her attacks, by how deftly she redirects a conversation. Now Emma watches as Eve pulls out a little square leather box.

     “It’s a Brownie. A camera,” she explains, dropping the bag. “Come here and learn how to use it. You hold it in front of you. Like this.”

     Eve demonstrates how to operate the camera, looking down into its lens and aiming it at a statue of an angel. She presses the button and the camera makes a click. “Here,” she says, stepping behind Emma so she can show her how to hold it.

     Emma feels Eve press against her back, cradling Emma’s arms with hers as the two of them grip the little black box, the frayed leather of its straps sprouting like grass from between the array of their fingers.

     “Aim,” she whispers, “and shoot,” she sighs as the shutter clicks again. “Now come on.”

     She breaks from their loose embrace and races across the cemetery’s rocky lawn, leaping over headstones like a hurdler until she reaches the statue of a man with a sweeping cape and a hat tilted over one eye. Eve stands tall, reaching her skinny arms skyward, pressing her back against the man’s, trying to blend in with the carved striations of his cape. She flips her body to press her chest against the smooth stone. Her cigarette, burning to ash, is still poised between her fingers.

     “How do I look?” she calls. Emma knows she doesn’t really require an answer, so she says nothing, trying to keep pace with Eve’s shifting forms.

     “Take my picture,” she exclaims, pressing herself even closer to the granite man, and Emma does, holding the little box before her with unsteady hands.

     Eve smiles, kisses rock, then swivels her hips so she’s leaning against the hulking curve of the statue’s back, looking into the camera with lazy eyes, waiting for Emma to snap the shutter each time she shifts, checking to see that Emma is watching. She takes one last drag from her cigarette, flits to another statue—a carving of an angel with wings that stretch from the blades of its shoulders—and stubs the butt against the angel’s forehead, drawing a streak of black ash from her brow, down the center of her nose to the cleft of her lips. Eve shakes her head and chucks the angel’s chin with her forefinger before kissing the cold, stone mouth.

     “No smoking for you either, fairy baby!” she chastises the statue. As she faces the camera, Emma takes her picture again. Eve crouches at the angel’s feet, rubbing its toes, and Emma snaps another shot. And another, and another, and another. The click of the shutter echoes between them as Eve flashes Emma a look she cannot fathom.

     The afternoon has deepened to evening, sky darkening to a dusty lilac; the pungency of linden trees in the spring breeze dwindles to a soft current of air pushing at the grass, occasionally ruffling the leaves of the surrounding trees.

     “Come closer,” Eve instructs, leaning against the angel’s legs, wrapping herself around its skirts like a little girl attaching herself to a busy mother, resting her cheek against a fold of stone cloth for Emma to take more pictures, and Emma complies, clicking the shutter repeatedly.

     “Don’t stop,” she says as she removes her shirt, turning the knobby rod of her spine toward the camera before standing to face Emma, her chest covered with a rosy flush, her small breasts bare and her hands pressed against the angel’s hips as if to steady the figure from falling away from her where she stands atop its feet.

     Emma hesitates, but Eve presses softly: “Emma, take my picture,” so Emma does, watching her through the lens of the little Brownie where Eve stands, silent, growing from the angel’s stone feet like some pale flesh-spirit, before slowly releasing the figure from the pressure of her hands so she can stretch her arms backward like wings, arching her back and pushing her chest forward, her eyes closed, her lips pressed together.

     “Emma, what do you see? Am I flying? Do I look like I could fly?” She is almost singing, her voice pitched high and light.

     When Emma fails to answer, Eve steps away from the statue, and extends her hand.

     “Give me the camera,” Eve says, and Emma hands it over. It has only been a handful of weeks and already she knows that she always does what Eve says, just like she always did what her father said once her mother had fallen asleep.

     She stands before Eve, mute.

     “Take off your shirt,” Eve orders.

     She closes the distance between the two of them, rests her hand gently on Emma’s shoulder, and ducks her head so she can look into Emma’s eyes. Emma can feel her bareness. Eve plucks at her sleeve with her free hand.

     “Take off your shirt,” she repeats, pulling harder at Emma’s sleeve. The cemetery, silent now, nestles around the two girls where they stand.

     “Come on, there’s no one here.” Eve nudges Emma behind a gravestone, easing Emma out of her sweatshirt. When she reaches for Emma’s T-shirt, Emma pushes her hands away.

     “I’ll do it,” she chokes, avoiding Eve’s appraising gaze.

     Slowly, Emma unhooks her bra, letting its straps slide from her shoulders, the skin of her heavy breasts illuminated against the encroaching darkness. She hugs her chest with both arms, ashamed of her thickness, of the way flesh sits sturdily on her bones. If Eve is an angel, Emma feels like a troll, solid and plain, red-cheeked and strong. No fairy baby, even if Eve does call her that. She is a child of earth, dark-haired and substantial, while Eve is a child of sky, crisp and feather-light like the women in Emma’s father’s pictures.

     “Put your arms down,” Eve directs as Emma steps from behind the stone like a lumbering wraith in the dusk. Slowly, painfully, Emma lets her arms fall to her sides, her heart thudding with dull anxiety as she faces this girl, shamed by Eve's lithesome beauty.

     Eve lifts the camera to her waist, aiming it. “See?” she says. “See!?”

     Naked in the cemetery with this girl and her camera, Emma wants to cover herself and run, leaving Eve and her strange quests behind; instead she remains, and Eve brushes the hair, damp with sweat, from her forehead. Gently she removes Emma’s hands from her breasts, then again from her belly, from her hips, from her face, and Emma, still as the stone statues glowing white in the deepening blue, lets Eve snap pictures of each new arrangement of flesh and limb until darkness falls and the film runs out.

 

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